Questioning God and Torah with an Orthodox Rabbi in Tzfat

My friend Jake and I went on a tour of Tzfat, but after finding it boring we headed back to the hotel and joined the “Stump the Rabbi” program. When we arrived we found a group of 8 teens gathered around a 20-some year old “rabbi” acting like every word out of his mouth was holy.
Jake and I jumped in and argued that there is no ontological proof of the existence or non-existence of God. The rabbi told us that the Torah serves as the proof of God to which we asked him why couldn’t a group of intelligent men have written the Torah.
He said that such allegations were ridiculous because Torah described Shmita. Shmita is also called the sabbatical year, which means that after six years of farming you leave the crops alone on the seventh year and on the eighth you’ll have a greater harvest. None of us were impressed by this answer. Sounds like science to us. Crops need rest.
He was getting upset now. He asked, “what about circumcision and keeping kosher?” Those are the wrong examples to bring up Rabbi. Both of those are scientifically proven to be healthier for humans. People didn’t want to eat pig because they are gross. Jews didn’t get the black plague because we wash our hands before meals. We are a clean people.
The Rabbi asked us what we believed specifically. We told him that we believed that these men wrote the Torah on parchment and that most of the stories serve as allegory to teach morals. There may be some bits of history recorded within the Torah, but it should not serve as a historical document.
The Rabbi was irate at this point and said that the idea that people wrote the Torah was as if we were supporting the idea of the protocols of Zion (group of Jews controlling the world).
I told him that he had stepped over a line and that was a huge exaggeration.
Honestly though it wasn’t that large of exaggeration. I do believe that these people (thousands of years ago) were trying to control others, just not necessarily maliciously. My mind immediately flashed to George Carlin talking about the Ten Commandments.
“Here’s how it happened: About five thousand years ago, a bunch of reli­gious and political hustlers got together to figure out how they could control people and keep them in line. They knew people were basically stupid and would believe anything they were told, so these guys announced that God— God personally—had given one of them a list of Ten Commandments that he wanted everyone to follow. They claimed the whole thing took place on a mountaintop, when no one else was around.”
-George Carlin
You don’t have to agree with Carlin. It would be hard for any religious person to do so.
We continued to argue and he told us that in order to be able to determine whether the Torah was God-given we’d have to have studied Torah and Rashi. When both Jake and I told him that we had both studied Torah and Rashi at Jewish school back in the states, he changed his stipulation to having studied the entire Torah from start to finish. I chuckled at this and told him, “You’re trying to tell us that we can’t ask these questions because our biblical knowledge of Judaism is inferior to yours. That’s true, but that’s not relevant.” He was so afraid of our question that he was willing to do anything to get rid of it.
We spent the next hour talking to these people about their views. The Rabbi believed in biblical literalism. He believed that everything that was written in the torah actually happened and that none of it was allegorical or metaphorical. Afterwards we spent another half an hour talking to his wife and her friend about my views in particular because they were curious.
First I defined my Judaism.
What do I believe? (they asked)
I’ll tell you.
I do believe in God, but as they astutely observed my belief in God has nothing to do with my Judaism. I’m not a fan of the Jewish god. He’s violent, sexist, tyrannical and too anthropomorphic. You aren’t good Jews? Oh, let me kill all of you with a flood. Yeah, not my kind of guy.
I believe in something relatively similar to Aristotle’s cosmological argument of the First Cause/Unmoved Mover. I believe that “God” was the “first cause” of the universe aka Big Bang. God can’t hear our prayers or interact with us because God’s metaphysical role and physicality was done trillions of years ago. I also believe that there is something magically spiritual in the fact that everything in the universe is connected chemically at an atomic level.
(my religious views are in constant flux)
Matthew Ritchie, Day One , 2008. Interactive digital animation, acrylic and marker on wall.
From an exhibit called, “In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis.” Exploring the continuing relevance of Genesis creation story. Commissioned for the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.
My religious views can best be explained by renowned Astrophysicist and atheist Neil deGrasse Tyson explain (or watch the video below)
Interviewer: “What is the most astounding fact about the Universe you can share with us?”
NDT: “The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high mass ones among them, went unstable in their later years. They collapsed and then exploded – scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy. Guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems: stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up…many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big, but I feel big because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected. You want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.
So how can I be Jewish if I don’t believe in the Jewish god?
I believe in my fellow Jews. God didn’t save us from the holocaust or the ghettos. God didn’t win the six day war for us. God didn’t grant us recognition in the UN. God didn’t give us nuclear weapons so that we could protect ourselves from any country on the planet. We Jews did. We kept each other alive as a nation. When we are united we are strong.
Which ties into the other question I was asked, which is what do I believe it takes to be a good Jew.
You have to be grateful that you’re a Jew. Grateful to your history and the sacrifices people made in the past for you. Pride is about yourself and defending your own ego. That’s why I prefer gratitude which is about including yourself in a group, in this instance the entire Jewish people and it’s history.
It was an incredible, long conversation and it was worth it that I was chastised for being late for the evening program.
I loved Tzfat. I love it for what it is. It’s a religious city. A beautiful city filled with people who care about their history and their God. They just need to be reminded that they aren’t superior to the rest of the world.
The conversation with the Rabbi, his wife and her friends was really fun. I knew that what Jake and I did was a little rude because we were pointing out the flaws with organized religion as a whole and our logic was foolproof. The reason we did it was because the name of the discussion was “Stump the Rabbi” and we wanted to play hardball. I was also hoping that this Rabbi could teach me since his breadth of Jewish knowledge is much larger than mine, but sadly he didn’t.
(The Tzfat rabbi came up to us later that night and apologized for his behavior, we apologized back)
In my program, we have an official Rabbi that comes every few weeks to discuss Judaism with us, luckily we have a highly intelligent group and so it becomes quite a heated argument. Last time he was here he told us that he believes that heaven is a place where we’ll all go with our souls and that if we have lived a life of spirituality we’ll enjoy more than those who haven’t. That’s a very subtle way of saying that if you’re a good Jew the afterlife will be great and if you weren’t…it will suck (Hell-like). I tried to explain to him for the next half an hour that morality and spirituality were not mutually inclusive. You can be a great person, and not believe in God. You can even be a spiritual person and not believe in God (we have a quite a few on this trip). He didn’t understand.
When the rabbi in Tzfat tried to convince us to believe in God he told us that if there was no God then our Jewish traditions would not have been passed down because there would have been no basis for them. He talked about the beauty that what we do today was done by our ancestors and thus God existence is irrefutable. Weak argument. Traditions don’t require a deity. What amazed me was that my friend Jake leading the counterargument with me interjected that the Rabbi was just regurgitating a theory proposed by Lawrence Kelemen in his book, “Permission to Receive”. Woah. I was impressed. I was glad to have the chance to sit down and talk with the Rabbi, I just wish he had the ability to wrestle with ideas.
I’m a man of “The Fountainhead”, I want your thoughts and ideas to be new and not recycle from the past. Your ideas are better than anyone else’s and nobody’s ideas match yours exactly because you’re you. As Steve Jobs would say, Think Different. That’s what I believe is one of the most important elements of Judaism, thought. Deep intellectual thought. It’s pretty much what our religion is based on (see the massive quantity of Jewish interpretative material)
“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.” -Albert Einstein
When you read this article I want you to disagree with something. It can be Big Shmuel’s morality or his wife’s ideology. It can be the ideas presented by Rabbi’s I’ve met. Or it can be me.
While everyone else had a Simchas Torah made up of drunk dancing and praying in Tzfat, my weekend consisted of heated intellectual, political and religious debates. Couldn’t be happier.